Trials of Fire
Flames raged across the Command Station. Theories were already being made—Arus could hear them—about every possibility from an internal accident to an elaborate surprise attack. To Arus, how it happened wasn't as important as the lives that had most certainly been lost.
"Arson," Nasael said, pointing at the smoke. "It would require an accident of catastrophic proportions to achieve this level of destruction. There must have been some sort of chemical or other advanced weaponry at work here."
"Weren't the senior officers called to a meeting this morning?" Sergeant Baird asked to no one in particular.
Yes, they were. All of them. And if they all perished in the blast, there would be no one in command of Del'Carjhal.
Arus climbed over the rubble and dashed into the snow, no longer concerned with the cold. If anyone had survived the attack, there would be limited time to mount a rescue.
He heard several shouts behind him, including Sergeant Garren. "Lieutenant, wait!" he called. "You'll freeze to death as you are!"
There was no time to be concerned with that. Yes, his bones ached, his fingers felt stiff, and his chest burned. But if there was anyone trapped in that building, if someone was fighting for their life, if someone was burning alive while he had the power to save them, that was the only thing that mattered. He ran as fast as he could, and Garren's pleas were soon swallowed by the howling wind.
Bodies littered the snowy path leading to the Command Station, a sight which made Arus sick to his stomach. Much of the compound was engulfed; there appeared to be very few places to enter safely. Where there had once been eight columns leading to the main doors, only two remained. Mounds of crumbled stone and distorted hunks of metal littered the paths in every direction. The station itself had been cleaved by the explosion; the forward section on the west side was gone, leaving all five interior levels exposed. Flames ate away at rugs and furniture—even the stone walls themselves burned in many places—and a crater twice the size of the Proving Grounds gouged the land beneath the rubble. It was as Nasael said; this had been no accident. I just hope there are survivors.
No matter how often he did it, Arus never quite knew how to activate the additional functions of the implant. It was more than simply thinking about it. Upon making the decision to use it, a stream of uncontrolled thoughts raced through his mind. Most made no sense to him, though he could pick out a few key words here and there. Establishing neural link. Laser coupling enabled. Neural link established. Initiating scanner systems. Activating radar. These and many more like them filled his head as the advanced abilities of the implant came online.
When it finished, a thin red film tinted everything, and a circular radar of deep maroon appeared in the upper-right corner of his vision. A white blip appeared, a single life form approaching from the south. To the lower-left of the display, the implant's power level glowed white, and the cybernetic eye's magnification setting was listed on the opposite side.
A sensor sweep indicated three life signs within the Command Station, though one was faint. A three-dimensional schematic of the building appeared, highlighting the fasted routes to each survivor. Two were below ground level somewhere near the weapons vault. The other—the faint signal—was located on the third level. It would probably be the easiest to reach, but there was no guarantee that the victim would still be alive when Arus got there. On top of that, if the structure collapsed while he was attempting to rescue the one, the other two would be crushed. He didn't want to lose any of them, but with the odds being what they were, he felt compelled to make the more practical choice.
Nasael's voice came from behind. "Where are they?" He knew what the implant could do; he'd seen Arus use it before.
"Two underground," Arus replied. "Another on the third floor. And whoever it is, they're fading fast."
Nasael rushed past him, gray and red rolling across his flesh. "Rescue the two below. I'll get to the third."
"Don't be insane!" Arus called after him. "Those flames are far too hot for you to pass through!"
Nasael was already scrambling his way up one of the remaining stone columns in front of the station. He pulled into a crouching position on top of the pillar and leapt, catching an exposed section of the station's steel framework. With relative ease, he hoisted himself onto the wide-open second floor and looked down at Arus.
"And are you so indestructible?" he asked, sparing a sarcastic smile. "I think if you can manage it, I can master it."
It wasn't as simple as that. "You don't understand. It's not the same."
"No, Lieutenant. There is much you don't understand about Clu." He disappeared through the fire into an adjacent hallway.
It was true that Arus didn't have extensive knowledge of the Clu. Nasael didn't exactly volunteer very much information. Truth be told, Arus kept much of his own background a closely guarded secret. Most of his fellow soldiers knew of his involvement in the Vezulian War, but Arus took great care to ensure the details remained hidden from the general public. If the wrong person learned of the existence of the Blade of Kaleo or The Fourth Dimension, the results could be disastrous.
Then there was the Lifestone, the purple-blue gem embedded in the center of the golden amulet hidden beneath his tunic. Capable of transforming an ordinary man into a powerful sorcerer, the Lifestone had been entrusted to Arus after the fall of Kindel Thorus. He'd been instructed to use it only as a last resort, and standing there in front of the Command Station with the life signs of three survivors flashing on his radar, Arus could think of no alternative.
The Lifestone provided Arus with something akin to a sixth sense. To say that he could manipulate the elements of nature would not describe the depths of his abilities—it wouldn't even scratch the surface. The amulet granted a new awareness of the universe, a power and understanding foreign to the average human. He could see every breath of wind, sense every snowflake, feel the movement of the clouds and the flow of the atmosphere. Every aspect of the Maker's creation was at his fingertips—a power he both respected and feared.
Among the prices for accepting responsibility for the stone had been a vow of secrecy ordered by Damien. Most crew members aboard the Refuge knew of the Lifestone's existence, but Damien had taken every measure to ensure that knowledge did not spread. Thus far, no one in Del'Carjhal knew, and Arus planned to keep it that way.
His wet clothes, frozen stiff in some places, began to drip as he stepped toward the burning rubble. The flames rapidly warmed his skin, a welcome change from the cold stiffness that had taken hold of his joints. The entrance to the lower levels was buried far beneath the debris. For anyone else, getting to the trapped soldiers would've meant going straight through the flames, but Arus had other options.
Nasael darted down the corridor, poking his head in and out of room after room. Carelessness had already cost him; a dark red swath ran across his forearm where his flesh rose and blistered. Avoiding the fire was impossible in some areas, but it was going to take more than a few flames to keep him at bay.
Bodies—both partial and whole—were everywhere. Many had been burned to such an extent that identification was no longer possible. A sad sight, for certain, yet unfamiliar to Nasael. It was a gruesome scene that reminded him of Clutau, and the reason he'd left the homeworld in the first place. "Curse you, Lieutenant," he swore under his breath. "Where's this bloody survivor of yours?"
Flickers of red and orange glowed against the walls through the smoke. Further down the hall, beyond the fire's edge, the remnants of two floor-to-ceiling glass doors lay shattered. They once served as the entrance to the tactical data center, an entire wing of the Command Station where a team of analysts compiled and studied any intelligence gathered. The department appeared to be empty; agents weren't on duty at all times of the day.
"Is there anybody in here?" he called from the doorway. No response. As he turned to move on to the next room, the floor began to tremble. It was subtle at first—like heavy footsteps crossing the hallway—but it intensified rapidly. I'm going to get buried in here!
Wasting no time, Nasael dashed back the way he'd come, jumping over debris and running through walls of fire toward the front of the Command Station. For a brief moment, daylight shone around the corner ahead. Then it was gone, replaced by a roaring column of air and snow that burst into the hallway. The sudden blast knocked Nasael onto his back.
"Curse you!" he swore through clenched teeth. Rolling onto his belly, he began to crawl against the rushing air, inching his way toward the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The wind intensified further, creating a suction effect that threatened to pull him deeper into the Station. What is this? What is happening?
Then, for an instant, it stopped. The tremors calmed, the air stilled, and only the settling flakes of snow left any evidence of the strange phenomenon. But the peace ended as quickly as it had begun, and the wind resumed with twice the strength. This time, however, it was flowing out of the building.
And to Nasael's great astonishment, it was sucking the fire along with it.
Flames barreled toward him like the freight trains he'd seen on Irius. With nowhere to run, Nasael buried his face in the crook of his arm and pressed as flat against the floor as he could. The inferno whooshed over with tremendous force, dragging chairs and terminals and other assorted debris along with it. There was nothing he could do but close his eyes, hold his breath, and hope for the best.
When it was over, only silence remained. "What was that?" Nasael asked to no one in particular. Rising, he took a few uneasy steps before sprinting down the corridor. When he rounded the corner; a charred mess of burnt carpet, mangled metal, and shattered stone framed the hall's abrupt end. What Nasael saw when he stepped to the edge made his eyes bulge.
Arus, the junior lieutenant, stood right where Nasael left him. However, his arms—both real and artificial—were raised to the sky. Above him, the fire that had been drawn from the Command Station floated in silence, condensed into a giant orb that glowed like a ball of magma. When Arus bright his arms to his chest, the sphere shrank to the size of his head. And when he clasped his hands together, it dissipated with little more than a brief flash of orange.
The boy was a sorcerer.
Nasael ducked behind the wall. What sort of deception is this? Humans do not have the ability to manipulate magic. Why would he keep such a secret from the Alliance? Unless . . .
The revelation hit Nasael like a club to his chest. He's no human, he must be a spy in some sort of elaborate disguise! No wonder he's got that device on his head! He claims the thing keeps him alive, but it's more likely to be a surveillance tool; an easy way for him to scout us and report back to the enemy. I'd wager the disaster here was his doing!
After watching Arus draw the fire out of the building with nothing more than will, Nasael could only conclude that the young man had started the fire to eliminate the top personnel of Del'Carjhal. The fact that Arus had been with him on the Proving Grounds all morning was irrelevant—there were many ways he could've arranged the attack without being present. In fact, he had a perfect alibi; Arus had been with numerous other soldiers who would no doubt support him in his alleged innocence. Perhaps he had enlisted assistance? How deep did this betrayal run?
A faint voice, clearly pained and strained to be heard from a nearby room. "Somebody? Anybody? Please . . . help me!"
Looking back, Nasael's sense of duty kicked in. "Enjoy your victory for now, Lieutenant, but I will expose you for what you really are."
Fire streamed from every opening in the Command Station. Using the Lifestone, Arus directed and merged each fiery rope and balled them into a single sphere above his head. Bringing his hands to his chest, he drew a portion of heat away from the whole and guided it around his body. The warmth acted as a cocoon, soothing his muscles and shielding him from the cold Vaank winds. Next, he pulled moisture from the winter air and pushed it into the fireball's core, shrinking it to a mere fraction of its original size. The remainder, a fragment too small to pose a threat, lost its cohesion and disintegrated in a vivid blink of orange.
With the Command Station no longer burning, Arus turned his attention to the trapped soldiers. A scan showed that they hadn't moved from their previous positions. That made Arus nervous; although they were still alive, they might be injured, buried, or affected by smoke inhalation. Meanwhile, on the third floor, Nasael appeared to be closing in on the third survivor. Good work, Corporal.
The implant analyzed the compound's layout and projected the fastest route to the underground access tunnel. Several areas were highlighted in red indicating a high risk of collapse due to structural damage. Several areas. If those two soldiers were going to have a fighting chance, the time to act was now.
Another explosion echoed, this time from the south.
It was decidedly smaller than the first, but another immediately followed. And another. Then the shrieks of laser fire. Something was happening on the far end of Del'Carjhal, but Arus couldn't concern himself with it just yet. There was an area of the compound on the far side where portions of exposed levels had given way, creating a slope of floors ascending from one to the next. His sensors indicated a small opening leading to the underground access tunnel beneath the slope. According to the implant's calculations, it was just large enough for passage. And it was the only route available.
"Can anyone hear me?" a frantic voice came from his communicator.
Another followed, this one a bit more stable. "Communications were disrupted by the attack. I think we've managed to reset the frequency modulator. Can anyone hear this message?"
"We are under attack!" a third shouted. "I repeat, we are under attack! This is Senior Sergeant Millanova. Enemy forces are assaulting Del'Carjhal from the southeast. We have reports of men and women carrying bombs on their backs and detonating them in apparent suicide attacks!"
Arus' heart dropped as he rushed across the debris field. Suicide bombers? What kind of barbarians would commit such dishonorable acts?
As if to emphasize his thoughts, he came upon a severed arm between two fallen portions of rock. It was burned and mutilated, but the charred sleeve of an Aeden uniform identified it as an ally. A former ally.
"This is Lieutenant Tesso speaking," a firm voice came from his comm. "All active duty personnel are to report to the firing range. Bring every piece of gear you can find and repel all enemy units. Del'Carjhal's junior officers are to report to the barracks immediately. Again, all junior officers to the barracks on the double."
Something about the whole thing didn't make sense to Arus. None of this adds up. Where would pirates get the numbers and artillery to overwhelm a military base like Del'Carjhal? His mind raced as he reached the opening to the access tunnel. Rolling a large pipe away, he yanked the comm from his belt. "This is Lieutenant Arus Sheeth. I'll be there shortly; there are three survivors trapped in the Command Station. Corporal Nasael and myself are attempting a rescue."
"Watch yourself, Lieutenant," Tesso's voice came back. "Save them if you can, but protect your own hide first."
Arus never paid much attention to that rule. "Understood," he said. Returning the comm to his belt, he pulled aside various pieces of debris around the opening. Several strips of steel and titanium that had once reinforced the ceiling now protruded from the hole at an awkward angle alongside a heavy beam—presumably the beam that had supported the above floor. Once each scrap was cleared, he managed to reveal a passage less than a sword's length in diameter. The descent would be snug, but it would have to do.
Peering through the opening, Arus could see straight down to the floor of the access tunnel. Taking care not to shred his flesh on the mangled metal around the edges, he lowered himself through the hole and began to descend. The beam stretched through several lengths of dirt and rock before reaching the underground passage. There was space to slip down beside it, but not much room for maneuvering. If he'd been prone to bouts of claustrophobia, the prospect of shimmying through would've been a nightmare.
The emergency floodlights were already on when his feet hit the floor. An old-fashioned tunnel of brick and mortar, the construction was reminiscent of some of the more extravagant homes back on his primitive world of Terranias. A trail of crimson drips and smears stained the floor leading away from the caved-in debris.
The chatter coming from his comm echoed through the hall. He temporarily muted it to listen for any signs of the survivors. Scans indicated that they were around the corner less than eighty paces ahead. With the amulet's power aiding his ears, he could hear faint conversation in the distance—the same direction of the blood trails. He sprinted down the corridor and rounded the bend to find the two soldiers against the right wall. A male and female, both faces he recognized but whose names he did not know. The male was sitting up against the wall with blood running down both sides of his head. The female, a thanai woman no more than twenty years of age, was using her uniform's coat to absorb the blood and put pressure on the wound.
"You there! This man is injured!" she exclaimed. The thanai were a human-like race of sorcerers with a gift for intellect and an unintentional air of arrogance about them. Humility and appreciation were not qualities they often displayed. They never meant any ill will; such things were simply not a part of their culture.
"Are you alright?" Arus asked, kneeling beside them.
"I am," the golden-haired woman responded through a heavy accent. "But Sergeant Keese was injured when the roof caved in back there. I can't stop the bleeding."
Keese, a sturdy man with one of the roundest heads Arus had ever seen, waved them both away. "I'm fine. Just a little bump. I consider myself lucky. Had I been three steps further when the ceiling fell, I'd be under that pile right now."
The thanai shook her head with a scowl. Her rank insignia identified her as a staff sergeant with the Aeden Air Battalion. "That's not 'just a little bump,' Sergeant. You are in serious need of medical attention."
"Agreed," Arus said. "But we've got a problem. I doubt we'll be able to get out through the same opening I used to get down here. I barely fit through myself."
"You two go," Keese grunted through heavy breaths. "Don't worry about me."
Arus activated his comm. "Sergeant Garren, do you read me? Garren, are you there?"
It took a moment, but Garren finally responded. "I'm here, Lieutenant. Are you safe?"
"I'm fine. Listen, I'm in the vault access tunnel beneath the Command Station. We've got a soldier down here with a serious head injury. I need to find a way to get this man out of here for medical attention, but a cave-in blocked the exit. I managed to squeeze down here through an opening beside the rubble, but I don't think we'll be able to get him back by the same route."
"You're wasting your time," Keese insisted. "Get yourselves out of here."
"Why would we leave a perfectly capable man behind?" the woman whispered.
"I'm sorry, Arus, but I'm not really sure what we can do for him at the moment." The sounds of laser fire came from the background as Garren spoke. "The south gates are under heavy siege, and these guys are pulling no punches. There are many wounded men and women here, Lieutenant. Many wounded. And to top it off, without a distinct chain of command in place to organize our soldiers and resources, many junior officers are barking out contradictory orders. It's chaos out here, Arus. Madness."
Arus couldn't accept that. "Is there no one you can send to help—"
Another voice interrupted him. "Lieutenant Sheeth, this is Lieutenant Tesso. Abandon your rescue mission and return to the surface on the double."
Tesso was not Arus' superior; in fact, they were junior officers of the same rank. "What? I'm not abandoning these people," Arus told him. "I'll find a way to get them out of here with or without—"
"You don't understand," Tesso cut him off again. "This isn't the standard enemy attack we're up against. Soldiers have reported seeing children on the battlefield. Children with explosives strapped to their backs. When one of the south scouts spotted a little girl running toward his guard tower, he radioed to us for orders. We told him that if he believed she posed a threat to Del'Carjhal, he had to open fire. He refused, and the girl detonated her bomb beneath his tower. Now she, the scouts in that tower, and the tower itself are gone."
It was nearly impossible for Arus to believe. Children, too? This is insanity! "There must be some sort of misunderstanding. Are you sure it was a child?"
"His was but one report out of many," Tesso replied. "So, with much regret, the rest of the junior officers and myself have decided to issue a Code Black."
"You can't be serious," Arus said in disbelief. "You want us to abandon Del'Carjhal?"
Tesso's voice was solemn. "How can we fire on children, Arus? How can we ask our people to target a little boy and pull the trigger? I couldn't do it. Could you?"
Arus ground his teeth but said nothing. He had enough trouble killing enemy soldiers. Children? Out of the question.
The thanai woman spoke. "If they pose a threat to our safety, sad as it is to say, they must be eliminated."
"No," Arus growled with a shake of his head. "No. The Lieutenant is right. If we stay and fight, the children will die along with the soldiers they kill. But if we leave, our soldiers live. And so will the children."
Tesso continued. "There are seven shuttles at the Spaceport. As soon as we conclude this transmission, we'll be issuing the Code Black. Get to one of those shuttles as soon as possible, Lieutenant. It would be a shame if you were left behind."
"What about my survivors?" Arus asked. "I can't just leave them here."
"Guardians of the vault, are they not?"
Arus looked at the two. Sergeant Keese nodded slowly, followed by the female thanai, who pointed to the steel vault door at the far end of the hallway. "Yes, it appears so," he answered.
"Then they know their responsibilities. Get out of there quickly, Arus. Tesso out."
Confused, Arus looked to the woman for answers. "What does he mean?"
"As guardians of the Command Station vault, it is our duty to protect not only the supply cache but the data core of Del'Carjhal's network as well. If there is a risk that any of these things might fall into enemy hands, we are to do whatever is necessary to destroy the weapons, equipment, ammunition, power packs, food, and data."
Arus began to feel sick to his stomach. "Dare I ask how you are to do that on such short notice?"
Sergeant Keese, grimacing as he did so, raised his left sleeve to reveal a black band with an embedded keypad. The thanai wore an identical device. "We must confirm our access codes simultaneously to activate explosives planted throughout the vault."
"Once it's activated, how long do you have to escape?"
Keese's eyes seemed distant and unfocused, but he managed a mild chuckle. "The explosion is instantaneous." He took a breath, pausing for a moment as though deep in thought, then exhaled. "Our best option is for me to take both data access keypads and detonate the thing once you two are safe."
"And leave you here to die?" Arus asked. "Out of the question. I won't—"
"Our orders come from far above your authority," Keese said. "Were the circumstances a bit different, we could detonate from a distance. But there's no time for that."
"I cannot allow you to take your own life," the thanai told him. Her voice was calm as could be, but her eyes glistened. "I will take both keypads and detonate once the lieutenant and I are away from here."
"Don't be foolish," Keese argued. "There is too much risk involved. What if you return to the surface only to find the enemy waiting when you emerge? Everything in the vault will become theirs. No, it is better if I do it. Besides, I refuse to place the burden of my blood upon your hands."
Her eyes narrowed. "It already is, Keese."
"I won't agree to this," Arus insisted. Standing, he started toward the vault door. "I'm going to recover the data core and then find a way to get both of you out of here with me."
"You won't be able to access the vault without clearance!" the woman called after him. "It takes a senior officer's security card and access key to gain entry!"
Arus muttered beneath his breath. "I carry my own clearance." A narrow red laser shot from his cybernetic eye, cutting a smooth hole through the vault's steel door. With no risk of injuring unsuspecting soldiers on the other side, Arus was free to raise the laser to its maximum intensity. The implant's precision guided him in cutting seven perfect circles—one around each of the locking mechanisms. Once the laser's job was done, it took but one solid blow to each from his mechanical fist to separate the severed bolts from the frame, and the vault door slid aside with relative ease.
The thanai approached with caution. "That . . . That was . . . "
"I never got your name," Arus said, glancing back.
As though suddenly aware of her rank, she stood at attention and saluted. "Alyinasynthoria," she said. "Sergeant Alyinasynthoria Minogralious."
"Somehow I doubt that's how others refer to you," Arus said, stepping into the vault.
"They don't, though I do not understand it. Thanai names are apparently too complex for the attention spans of most other races. Here in Del'Carjhal, I'm simply referred to as Sergeant Mino. Or Aly, if you prefer."
"Well then, Aly, can you show me where to find the data core?"
She eyed him for a moment, blatantly weighing his reliability in her mind. She stood at least a head taller than him—taller than human women of her age, but about average for a thanai. Her black eyes, common amongst the thanai, contrasted her blond hair. Fleshy knobs lined her hairline, running from the center of her forehead down to her ears. Experience had taught Arus that they were called khada in the thanai language, and they were tiny bundles of nerves that helped to increase focus when manipulating magic. Eventually, she crossed her arms and frowned. "Guardians of the vault are only permitted to release the data core to members of the Del'Carjhal senior staff."
"Every senior officer on the base has been killed, it seems." Arus told her.
"In such situations, we are ordered to destroy the core to prevent it from falling into enemy hands."
"Aly, we don't know who attacked us today or why, but the data core could hold a wealth of information to help us piece together the puzzle. Any information we can recover could help the Alliance investigate this threat."
"My orders are—"
"Maker's breath! There are children out there carrying out suicide missions! The data core may provide us leads to help save them!"
Again, Aly seemed to be considering his request. Her next words shocked him. "I should arrest you, Lieutenant. You've violently breached a secured vault belonging to the Aeden Alliance without the proper clearance."
"And if the council decides to issue a warrant for my arrest, I'll go quietly. Right now, the events going on in Del'Carjhal are my primary concern."
Finally, her expression seemed to soften. "I'll be sent to trial alongside you, I suppose. The children must come first. But heed my words, Arus Sheeth. I am going to be watching you very closely."
"Fair enough," Arus agreed, turning his attention back to the vault.
Emergency lights cast long shadows over everything. Numerous green cases and black crates were stacked atop mobile units in neat lines. Their contents varied; some stored water and rations while others contained pistols, rifles, generators, and additional weaponry. The rear wall was lined with computer terminals, data center backups, and the central processing units for each of Del'Carjhal's individual intelligence-gathering systems. All appeared to be deactivated.
"Where to?" Arus asked.
"Come," Aly motioned, taking the lead. "I'll show you."
Another explosion sounded somewhere in the distance, sending a subtle tremor through the floor. Images of children carrying rifles and detonating bombs filled Arus' mind as he followed Aly to one of the terminals at the far right end of the vault. As much as he tried not to focus on what was happening out there, he couldn't help but dwell on the harsh reality that awaited him upon his return to the surface. One way or another, he had to find a way to rescue what children could be saved. He wouldn't be able to live with himself if he didn't.
Shaking himself from his thoughts, Arus turned his attention back to the present. Aly kneeled beside one of the terminals where a black panel in the shape of a hexagon glowed with a red border. She placed her hand against the panel, and a voice came from the terminal. "Vocal recognition protocol. Please identify."
"Staff Sergeant Alyinasynthoria Minogralious. Emergency extraction authorization: seven-two-bravo-tango-six."
"Confirmed," the terminal responded. Five latches popped open, one at each point on the hexagon. Aly slid the unit from the terminal, a five-sided electronic device about as thick as a brick.
"I'll hold onto it," she said, tucking it into a brown pouch on her belt.
Arus knew she didn't want to hand it over, but there would be time for convincing her later. "Come on, we've got to get Sergeant Keese back to the surface."
As he ran back toward the vault's entrance, Aly continued to protest. "He won't come, Lieutenant. Our orders override yours."
"Your orders don't say you must sacrifice yourselves," Arus said over his shoulder. "Just that you must destroy the weapons and supplies."
"But we cannot get him out of here. You said so yourself."
Arus didn't answer. He didn't have an answer to give.
When they arrived at Keese's side, they found him slumped over sideways, breathing erratically. Blood ran down his cheeks and dripped from his chin. "Go," he grunted. "Just go. Get . . . get out!" His eyes were glazed over, and he seemed to be extremely disoriented.
"No," Arus said, shaking his head. "I won't—"
"Lieutenant, the enemy is closing in," Aly cut him off. Her accent became more pronounced as she became more agitated. "It is our duty to see this place destroyed." She removed her black armband. "If we wait around here trying to find a way to save this man, two things will happen. He will bleed to death, and you and I will either be captured or killed. Regardless, we'll be left behind by the rest of the garrison, and our supplies will fall into enemy hands along with the data core."
Arus clenched his fists in frustration. The implant analyzed option after option to try to bring Keese safely to the surface, but it provided no plans that could be executed within a matter of minutes. It wasn't as simple as cutting a bigger extraction hole with the cybernetic eye's laser weapon; in all probability, the entire tunnel would collapse if he tried. "I can't willingly leave a man to die," he murmured.
Aly wasn't paying attention. With a face of stone, she kneeled and gripped Keese's blood-covered hand. "You are an honorable warrior, Sergeant Mason Keese. I'll see that your sacrifice will be made known amongst the Aeden Alliance as well as my people."
Keese rolled his head to the side and gazed up at her. "It has been a pleasure . . . serving alongside you, my friend."
Aly bowed her head for a brief moment, then entered in a sequence of numbers on her keypad. "Access granted," she said, handing it to him. "You may activate the self-destruct protocol when ready."
Struggling to focus on his own pad, the sergeant typed his access code. When he was finished, red buttons illuminated on both. With one in each hand, he looked up at Arus. "I'll give you five . . . five minutes before I detonate."
Arus stared in disbelief. "How can you two be so calm about this?"
Aly said nothing. Instead, she barged past him and rounded the corner.
"Trust me," Keese began, resting his head against the wall. "She is more upset about this than you are. She's just . . . thanai."
Arus, having clearly been overridden, could do nothing more. Looking down at Keese, he gave the traditional salute of the Aeden Alliance, then added his own bow of respect. "May the Maker greet you with open arms," he whispered, turning away.
"Lieutenant?" The sergeant's voice stopped him. "Please see her safely out of Del'Carjhal."
Once more, Arus faced him. "On my honor," he replied.
"Thank you. Now, go."
With great reluctance, Arus bowed one last time. Then he was off, running back through the corridor toward the pile of rubble where he'd first descended into the access tunnel. Aly was already climbing the fallen beam when he arrived, shimmying her way toward the narrow opening in the ceiling.
"Be careful," he called to her. "The beam feels sturdy enough, but nothing is stable. It could all come down at any moment."
"Then I supposed you'd better start climbing before that happens," she snapped.
Arus bit his tongue. Sometimes, he'd learned, silence was the best response.
Though she was taller, Aly was a bit slimmer than Arus. She managed to scoot her way through the opening with surprising ease, and he followed. The climb was far more difficult than his initial descent, but he managed to keep pace with Aly. They were about midway to the top when Arus heard shouts from the surface.
"Here they are!"
"Quick, give me your hand!"
An unseen arm hoisted Aly from the tunnel. "Come on, Lieutenant!" Garren shouted, reaching through the opening. "We've come to get you out of here!"
Arus stretched up with his mechanical arm and gripped the sergeant's outstretched hand. Moments later, he emerged into the frigid Vaank air surrounded by several other Aeden soldiers. Aly brushed off her uniform a short distance away while Private Sven Tempes threw a coat around her shoulders. To the right, Junior Lieutenant Briela brandished a rifle and eyed the skyline.
"Here you go, Boss." Baird handed him a heavy fleece coat. The shield of heat that Arus had wrapped around himself using the amulet had dissipated long ago, and he was grateful for the added layers of warmth.
"Thank you, Linard. I thought you were repelling enemy forces down south," Arus said, sliding his arms into the sleeves.
"We were," Garren told him. "But when the Code Black was issued, we decided to come and get you. What happened here? One moment, I could see the flames on the horizon, and the next minute they were gone."
"Yes, Lieutenant," Nasael spoke up. He stood behind everyone with his arms crossed. "We're dying to know."
There was more than a little sarcasm in his voice, but Arus dismissed it as Nasael simply being Nasael. "We can't concern ourselves with those questions right now," he said, motioning for them to follow. "When Keese detonates the explosives in the vault, this entire structure is going to come down. We've got to get out of here before that."
Garren's eyes shot back to the hole in the floor. "Sergeant Keese is still down there?"
Aly's voice was soft. Almost remorseful. "He is doing his duty."
Garren shot her an incredulous look, but Arus shook his head. "I don't like it any more than you, Sergeant. But he will not obey my orders. He's acting on his own to save us. Let's not waste that sacrifice."
"By the Blessed Light of Thanasia," Aly murmured, looking over the destruction for her first time since the initial blast. "How did this happen?"
"I don't know," Arus replied, buckling his sword belt over his coat. "But we've got less than three minutes to get to safety. Come on."
The amount of black smoke billowing into the sky over the base had multiplied exponentially. Most of it originated from the south, but plumes rose from various other areas of Del'Carjhal as well, forming a cloud of darkness that all but blocked the usually white sky. Fiery glows of orange and red beneath provided the only illumination, a tint that stretched across much of the horizon. Arus couldn't fathom how the pirates had succeeded with such a devastating attack, but what was done was done, and so long as they had the data core in their possession, there was a chance that they might unravel the mystery.
They ran as fast as they could, navigating their way across the blast zone toward the main path. As he weaved between two twisted beams, Arus scanned for nearby life signs. Sergeant Keese's was the only remaining signal to appear on his radar, and it was fading. There was no signs of Nasael's survivor; hopefully it meant that his rescue had been successful. Arus made a mental note to ask later.
The implant's internal clock indicated that just over four minutes had passed since they had left Keese's side. They were running out of time, and Arus was running out of energy. He'd been pushed by adrenaline since the start of the obstacle course, and his body was feeling the effects. The exertion of climbing over debris as they scaled the opposite side of the crater made his limbs burn.
The others were having far less trouble. Aly moved with impressive agility, slinking through twisted beams and scrambling over large piles of rubble. Garren bounded over obstacles like a mountain lion, and even the smaller Sven Tempes managed to keep pace with the pack. The distance between Arus and the others was increasing, but the perimeter of the blast zone was in sight. Just a few more steps, and—
A sound like a muffled thunderclap came from behind. The ground shifted beneath Arus' feet, bulging ever so slightly with the force of the detonation. Instinct told him to take cover, but he kept pushing forward. The remaining sections of the Command Station would likely come down when the vault collapsed upon itself, and Arus was not going to allow his name to be added to the day's list of casualties. With one final burst of energy, he hurled himself over the crater's edge and rolled across the snow-covered path in front of the Command Station. The others met him there, and Garren helped him to his feet.
"We must get to the Spaceport before we are left behind!"
The land began to rumble, sending spires of dust and smoke into the air from newly formed holes around the far edge of the blast zone. Arus watched with a mixture of sadness and fear as the ground gave way, and the compound's steel framing buckled.
Baird motioned frantically as large portions of the structure began to collapse. "We're in danger here!" He pointed to the nearest corner of the building—the still-standing section where Nasael had earlier entered. It was less than twenty paces away from where they stood, far too close with a collapse imminent. Arus knew he had to follow as the others ran along the path to the east, but a part of him felt as though he was somehow disrespecting Keese's sacrifice by leaving. Standing there would accomplish nothing; he knew that. Until that moment, his heart had clung to hope against all odds that the man could somehow be rescued.
As more beams folded and more floors fell, Arus turned and chased after his fellow soldiers. Even as he ran, he could hear the screeching of twisting metal and feel the impact of falling wreckage reverberating through the ground. Finally, the entire compound came down in a massive brown cloud of smoke and dust.
Rest in peace, Sergeant," he said softly. "Maker be with you."